Look before you leap

Some early steps to make your great idea for a development project even better.

Look before you leap.
Dr Kristin Shine Polman, Director of International Innovation Competitions for Smart Villages

An adviser recently asked one of my project teams how many NGOs we thought were operating in Kenya. The answer? 29,200. There are a lot of places where motivated, capable people can have an impact in developing countries, but once you have a great idea for a project, how do you avoid being repetitive or competitive with existing efforts, bringing the list to 29,2001?

My advice is to approach it like you would any other idea for a new product or start-up.

Step 1: define the problem

Defining the unmet need is the first step in validating any idea for a proposed solution. For example, let’s say you have defined the problem as low literacy rates in Kenya, so your proposed solution is to build a new school in an area with a particularly low literacy rates. Sounds like a great plan! Put together a proposal and start pitching for funding.

But what if there are already plenty of existing (or previously failed) schools in your proposed area and literacy rates remain low? Building a school addresses the problem of too few schools, but in this scenario a lack of schools is not the core problem. Proposing a solution before digging deeper to define a targeted problem could lead to an ineffective solution, a failed project and wasted resources.

Step 2: understand existing solutions

Defining the problem gets easier as you do your homework to understand existing solutions and the ‘market demand’ for your proposed solution. In the above example, some rigorous benchmarking research would have revealed that actually there are (have been) plenty of schools in low literacy rate areas of Kenya, but they face a number of more granular challenges including lack of materials, high student-to-teacher ratios and poor teacher retention.

Step 3: refine your proposed solution and form strategic collaborations

So now that you understand more about the current landscape and existing competition for your initial solution, go back and refine your understanding of the problem: low literacy rates in a specific area of Kenya are partly due to poor teacher retention in existing schools. More research into the reasons behind poor teacher retention might highlight poor working conditions in schools, including limited access to electricity for lighting or a lack of toilets.

By benchmarking and building a better understanding of the underlying reasons for poor teacher retention, you can propose a more refined and perhaps unconventional project: Toilets for Literacy, a new collaboration with Ikotoilet to prioritise school toilet installation in low literacy areas to improve teacher retention. Perhaps this project will be able to reach 25 schools in a particular region and have a greater overall impact on literacy than building a new school and being unable to attract or retain teachers.

Connect, complement, collaborate!

To summarise in one sentence, my advice is – run with your idea but don’t forget to look before you leap. Finding out someone else is already ‘doing it’ shouldn’t be interpreted as a threat or a disappointment.

  • Do your homework to find opportunities to connect with similar initiative to ensure your efforts aren’t competing with each other in a negative way.
  • Find out more about what they’re doing and refine your idea to complement existing efforts.
  • Develop your idea and make a strong case to collaborate with those who are working towards the same ends.

Good luck!

Kristin Shine Polman

Kristin Shine Polman

Kristin Shine Polman

Latest posts by Kristin Shine Polman (see all)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.